What if you were looking at the world differently? This is the invitation extended to you by Le Monde en un Regard, a travel agency which designs custom-made itineraries with a sustainable and human touch. Firmly rooted in India, the agency has expanded its activities in the region and beyond. We spoke with Pratap Lall, one of the agency’s co-founders, about the philosophy that guides it.
Pratap grew up in Puducherry (Pondicherry), a region of Southeast India that has a special relationship with France since it was a French territory until the 1950s.
He was educated, as he puts it, in a “different kind of institution” that followed the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Gosh was a master philosopher and humanist who had a vision of a society living in balance and harmony with a sharing economy). “This philosophy is based on the fact that life is not yours to consume but to understand. I may have integrated all this when I was younger and it led me to work in the tourism sector, to share this passion for humanity and everything that surrounds it.”
For several years he worked as a tour guide and noticed that the agency he worked for was only doing consumer tourism. He didn’t have time to visit a village or delve into the culture of the places they were visiting with his groups. When he realized this was not what he wanted, he had the opportunity to work with Nouvelles Frontières in several adventure groups where he had the freedom to build an itinerary, as long as he respected the dates and the budget. He would send the itinerary to the participants for their information, but always asking them if they could trust him on this point. He needs to have the trust of the guests because they do not know the country. When Pratap is in the field, he wants to show the country as it is, the good sides as well as the bad sides, but he wants his guests to understand the good sides.
Even in the mud, you will find a hidden fragrance. The lotus flower grows in the mud, a man or a woman will go and get this lotus flower, he or she will take you to a temple to make an offering. And whoever looks at it doesn’t know that it comes from the mud. He or she looks at it and says, “How beautiful!”. To me, that’s what traveling is all about! “
Feeling that he did not have enough freedom in the tours he was guiding, Pratap launches together with his friend and associate Gilles Guillot their own travel agency: Le Monde en un Regard. The name of the agency, “The World at a glance” is meaningful. It’s about seeing the world with a different eye. With an established expertise in India, the agency has extended its offers to Sri Lanka, Bhutan and even to South Africa and Uzbekistan.
When the agency creates a travel plan for a guest or group that, say, wants to focus on gastronomy, the trip will include not only cooking, but also learning about the nutritional value of local foods, botany, the lives of farmers and the issues they face. “When you visit, if you don’t understand a country, you can’t feel comfortable. That’s why I talk a lot with my clients.”
Pratap, and his agency, puts a lot of trust in his guides and make sure they are well paid. They are his eyes on the field. They’re the ones who can tell him: “Mr. Lall, three years ago, there were changes in this village, there’s an association that developed something…” This is not something to be neglected. The agency works with people who share the same values they do, who respect wages, but also, we work with associations.
And Pratap likes to have feedback on the developments that are done with the money he puts in. For example, the agency planned a trip with a doctor in France who wanted to use this opportunity to build a clinic in a village in Gujarat, where this doctor is originally from. In the travel plan, Pratap included the doctor’s contribution to the budget. He trusted him and accompanied him. They spent three days with an association, discovered the village and listened to their needs. Their first need was a photocopier. They bought it on the spot and the doctor bought other things with the rest of the money and gave it to the small clinic that needed it.
When Pratap starts to plan an itinerary with a customer, he starts by asking: “What are you looking for in a country ?”
He always chooses the agencies he works with based on the type of service they provide. Let’s say he plans a cultural itinerary, he will look into his network or look for an agency that is specialized in that field. One of the main things for Le Monde en un Regard is that they want their guests not to be mere spectators but to participate, in local festivities for instance. Sometimes, visitors don’t understand exactly what is happing or they should behave but this is why the agency relies a lot on their guides that they oversee from a distance.
French tourists are generally cultured and open-minded. They can be very critical at home but very open abroad. Some even forget they are French. They want to be with the locals and for us, this is great. When you buy a formatted itinerary, you’re just counting the days because you want to go back to France and eat cheese.
Their job as a travel agency is to make their guests forget about France or that they are not at home. It’s not their country, but they should feel comfortable. That’s the goal for Le Monde en un Regard.
How does the agency fit into the sustainable tourism pattern when it operates in countries that might not put sustainability at the top of their needs?
According to Pratap, the concepts of sustainability and equity are great, but they come at a cost. Are people willing to pay for it? That’s a big question. Le Monde en un Regard tries to balance things out and mix, for example, stays in ecolodges with more traditional hotels. In this case, they make sure that the establishments respect environmental standards. They ask their partners to check that the properties have standards in terms of recycling, plastic… For example, one of their partners collects water bottles at the end of the day and gives them to an association with which they work for recycling. Another example: they ask their partners what they do with their leftover food. Here, the agency has more of an educational role on good environmental practices. It is not that easy because different people have different ideas about what to do.
They also mix transportation means by including train and sometimes even oxcart. It’s also a way to save a trade.
If no one uses oxcarts anymore, how‘s the driver going to make a living? We want to educate, encourage and change people’s minds. It has to come from them.
We asked Pratap what made Le Monde en un Regard different from their peers. His immediate answer was: “We take the time”.
They talk a lot with their guests, the trips are custom-made and they are followed from A to Z. They never leave anyone on their own. For Pratap, it’s a question of trust. Even if it’s a trip for an individual, he will call the driver or the agency and check that everything is okay or suggest places to visit based on the guest’s interests. But he also checks that his guests respect the Indians. It’s the little things that make the difference. And when his guests return, he does not ask if everything went well, but if something went wrong. He has to ask how they can do better. For his guests, it must be like: Pratap means India and India means Pratap.
But Pratap also has a very philosophical reason for this.
You know, when you leave home to travel, you leave your energy circle behind. For me, I manage someone’s energy when traveling. I have to be able to keep someone’s energy in balance.
But there is so much a travel agent can do.
For him, openness has to come both ways. he can send a guest abroad, make a great program but if he or she is shut to the others, does not speak English, let alone Hindi, it’s not going to be enjoyable. He or she has to be ready to take the first steps to go where the guide or the driver will take him or her. This is the kind of service a small agency like Le Monde en un Regard can provide.
And how about post-covid recovery and the future of tourism? Pratap thinks it will take time.
People have become aware of the situation and are looking to get closer to nature, to respect nature and each other. Pratap believes so strongly in slow tourism that he’s been checking with his partners to find hotels and shorter itineraries within a 100-mile radius and staying overnight or spending three nights in the same place but doing different day trips from there, then moving on. At least that’s what he plans for individual or small group trips. For larger groups, he’s not so sure.
People want to meet the locals, the artisans, and then participate in protecting the environment and the local culture. But it will take time because there is a lot of discussion on social media about how people are tired of consumer-based tourism, but it comes at a price.
Pratap explains that a lot of investment is needed from service providers in India or elsewhere. They have started using LPG buses, installing solar panels on the roofs of hotels and this has a cost. He thinks it will take 5 years before there is a good balance between rates and the environment but they have to start somewhere. At first, sustainable travel was an upper-class concern but now even the middle class is getting on board. It will be a matter of balance. Travelers will want to mix village stays, homestays, and nights in environmentally friendly boutique hotels. The essential for Pratap is that tourism should not destroy the lives of your fellow human being.
The villages have lost their ways to please the tourists, but it is not the villages that must adapt to the tourists, it is the tourists that must adapt to the villages.